By Randy Richardson
Lake Claremont Press is all about Chicago, and as such, it reflects its hometown: gritty and scrappy, yet also friendly and welcoming.
Just take a peek at the Lake Claremont Press website, and you get the sense of that Chicago second-to-none spirit:
“In an age of giant media mergers at one end of the spectrum, Lake Claremont Press represents the alternative at the other end: a small, independent, niche publisher specializing in a subject that we know better than anyone,” the About Us section of the website reads. “As such, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the publishing houses of that ''other'' big city.”
Then take a look at some of the published titles from Lake Claremont Press. They include local bestseller ''Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City'' and award-winners ''Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago and the Movies'', ''The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History'', ''Near West Side Stories: Struggles for Community in Chicago's Maxwell Street Neighborhood'', and ''The Streets & San Man's Guide to Chicago Eats''.
Lake Claremont Press is a true Chicago gem, perfectly cut by its founder, Sharon Woodhouse, to show off all that makes Chicago such a sparkling jewel.
CWA: Please give our readers a brief overview of Lake Claremont Press.
Sharon: Lake Claremont Press, founded in 1994, is a small, independent, boutique publisher specializing in books on the Chicago area and its history. We like to consider ourselves the leading publisher of non-fiction on Chicago, trusted for our original and authentic “native’s” approach to covering the area’s history, culture, geography, spirit, etc. We want our book to focus on the common goods of “preserving the city’s past, exploring its present, and ensuring a future sense of place,” (that’s the mission-statement stuff) while helping individual readers better appreciate, understand, and navigate the city around them. We look for authors who are passionate about the city and their subject, who won’t get tired of talking and thinking about it once the writing is done, and kind of buy into our mission of spreading the Chicago word.
CWA: How did you get the idea for Lake Claremont Press? How did the name of your publishing company come about?
Sharon: I had the misguided idea in late 1993 that publishing one book would be a way to pay off some undergraduate student loans, allowing me to resume grad school (in philosophy) with a clean slate.
One summer when I was growing up when we weren’t going out of town for a vacation, my dad said we were staying at “Lake Claremont,” referring to a kiddie pool in the backyard of our home on Claremont Avenue. He thought that was so funny that he resurrected the name from time to time and it became a fixture for the ol’ homestead. Then, when going through all the paperwork for starting my business, I came upon the assumed name form and sped through filling it out so I could file it that day. In a careless 30 seconds, not considering I’d have a real business somewhere down the road, I thought “Lake Claremont” was a funny choice considering its staying-home-and-enjoying-the-city origins, and that was that.
CWA: What is your own background? Are you a writer? If so, what comes first for you: writing or publishing?
Sharon: My own background is city kid goes to college, studies philosophy and international relations—two things that didn’t easily lead to a job—then panics at age 25 at the looming life of waitressing and math tutoring ahead, and starts a business because it’s easier than getting a job and working for someone else. I’d been a writer and ardent reader my whole life, but somehow ended up clueless about the world of publishing until I stumbled into it. It’s actually a near-perfect fit for me and comes first. I’m in no way a frustrated or aspiring writer, though if I had more time, I’d like to write essays, philosophical tomes, and musical spoofs (Capitol Steps type stuff).
CWA: You don’t find many publishing houses in Chicagoland? Why is that? Would you like to see more?
Sharon: The dominant publishing activities in Chicago are reference, professional, and textbook publishing, which—who knows—may be consistent with the city’s no-nonsense image and industrial heritage. Perhaps it’s some Second City thing. If we’re not going to have publishing powerhouses to compete with New York, we’re not going to have much at all. It’s left to a city like Minneapolis then, without such issues, to be the small press capital of the country. They have a very creative, literary, educated populace like we do, just without an obsessive need to be biggest and best interfering with them producing and creating in their own way.
Chicago does have a thriving literary and publishing scene, but much of the new stuff is centered around zines, journals, and other micro-activities. The existing trade book publishers and university presses seem to be swimming along nicely; our ranks are not swelling with new colleagues though. Over and over again I hear people (writers!) expressing a need for a good fiction house in Chicago, or even a specialist in Chicago-based fiction.
CWA: Are writers based in Chicagoland at any disadvantage by not having publishing houses nearby? In other words, should we all pack our bags and move to New York?
Sharon: I wouldn’t think so, but this is out of the realm of the publishing I’m familiar with.
CWA: How difficult is it for indie publishers these days? What is your own recipe for success?
Sharon: One figure I heard said that 80% of small presses went out of business the year after 9/11. That was an economically very tough year for books, but it also was kind of a natural correction to a short span of time when the book world became glutted with new micro-presses and people who had no business or no real intention of becoming an established press got into the game. (That was me, too.) It was after desktop publishing made it possible for anyone to become a publisher and before print-on-demand technology became a viable option for self-publishing. Publishing is not an easy business for anyone, large or small or tiny, but at least now, people can enter into it at the place that makes sense for them. If you want to publish your own work, you don’t have to print 3,000 for the most economical off-set printing price and set up shop necessarily as a publisher. You can try out 300 with on-demand printing and go from there. This might give indie publishers who have survived a stronger presence in the marketplace and something unique to offer authors and readers that’s not New York and not iUniverse.
Our recipe for success includes carefully choosing authors and books (passion is key for us), sticking with what we’re good at, attention to strategic planning and business goals, creative and persistent marketing, maintaining good media relationships, excellent and personal customer service, a happy office environment, and every new advantage we can think up.
CWA: How difficult is it to start your own publishing company?
Sharon: Like any business, it’s easy to start, hard to stay in. Actually, I think it may be harder now than in the mid-1990s when I got in to start a small press because with so many new one-title, print-on-demand publishers trying to get distribution, there are some new industry standards that make entry to traditional distribution outlets harder without more titles under your belt. Still, these new publishers have all the new technological advances that may make traditional distribution outlets less relevant for many of them.
CWA: How many titles do you publish a year? How many queries do you get a year?
Sharon: We publish 5-7 titles annually, and receive about 500 queries, from casual phone or email pitches to slim or elaborate proposals to partial or complete manuscripts. Of those 500, however, only about 30 are truly competitive. We are very specific on our website about what we’re looking for; it’s likely that anyone who “gets” what we’re about and carefully prepares their proposal will be among the competitive 30.
CWA: What is the submission process? Do you accept non-agent or unsolicited queries?
Sharon: Our submission information is at our website. All of our submissions are unsolicited. We have worked with an agent or two, but prefer not to. There really is no role for agents at our size and with the way we operate; we want to deal directly with authors.
CWA: Recently you started writing a blog. How has that experience been for you? Has the blog led to any noticeable increase in interest in the books you publish?
Sharon: No noticeable marketing value to the blog yet. We don’t know if anyone’s even reading our blog, and we haven’t tried to concoct it into some must-read thing either, but we did want a place where we could post news of the company, our books and authors, as well as any ramblings on the city and our adventures within it.
CWA: What is your ultimate goal for Lake Claremont Press? What do you see the future holding for your publishing house?
Sharon: The goal right now is to keep on going as we are, building and stabilizing the company, then eventually selling it to someone who loves the city and books and idea behind the press as much as I do to keep it going so that I can comfortably retire off of it!
Plans for the more immediate future include a move to a bigger location in downtown Chicago, pursuing some movie/television rights sales, and delving into the world of electronic content, while doing the same old, same old.
CWA: What trends are you currently seeing in book publishing?
Sharon: The pushing of all the boundaries of what makes a book: books packaged with toys or audio; books packaged as toys or audio; books dissected into parts and sold off piecemeal; books as nothing more than content that can be bought, sold, mixed and matched in any way; books as art; books with all levels of production values; books with a print run of 10 and books with a first printing of 10 million. There’s still plenty of room for just plain books too. They’re still relevant, still read, still respected.
CWA: What advice do you have for authors seeking publication and success?
Sharon: Obviously from the writing end, there are such expected things as clear and original thinking, dexterity of language, something to say, a singular voice in which to say it, passion, creativity—all those things authors already know and work so hard at refining. Some important things about publishing for authors to keep in mind are:
A book—especially non-fiction, which is what we do—is a collaborative effort and a product that belongs to the publisher. The author contributes the written material—the essential core, and a team of others adds their own skills, experiences, and passions to create the “book.” Successful books require the expertise of the editors and designers; the participation of the photographers and indexers; the conceptual abilities of the publisher and marketing people; and the PR and sales networks of the company. Savvy authors understand this and pitch what they have in this context.
Most publishers are not subsidized or non-profit entities. They are in business and make acquisitions and other decisions based on their knowledge of the industry and their own business requirements. If they choose your book and invest in it, they want it to succeed, not fail! Too many authors take a needlessly antagonistic stance in relation to publishers. Publishers are generally very ethical, open-minded people who love books and are trying to keep their company viable so they can keep releasing them. You can present your divergent point of views to them, and if you’re convincing, they’ll gladly change their mind. If not, trust them to run their business the best they know how. And, if you don’t like their choices or motivations—or you don’t like the commerce of publishing period—these days you can always strike out on your own, do it your way, and fly by your own instincts.
Most publishers know what they’re looking for and will be specific about it in their submissions guidelines. Authors should read this information carefully from the publisher’s perspective—not as it meets their own agenda—honestly assess whether or not it’s a good match for them and their work, then go from there. Our guidelines and niche are quite specific, and yet, amazingly, at least once a week, someone’s pleading with me to look at their manuscript on a totally unrelated subject just knowing that their book will be my one exception to Chicago books. What? Why would you want to do that? Work with someone who’s not suited to publish something you’ve worked so hard on, likely poured your heart and soul into? An author with something of real value has real options and should seek the best fit for their handiwork.